One is a bit of a fishing expedition. The other is basic First Amendment rights. And in Francis Chester’s hands, both are ticking time bombs aimed at March 11.
The Churchville attorney was at the Augusta County Government Center in Verona Tuesday afternoon to hand-deliver letters to county administrator Patrick Coffield and commissioner of the revenue Jean Shrewsbury related to the ongoing fight against the 2009 county property reassessment.
The letter to Coffield requests that the county administrator rescind an order barring petitions to the Board of Supervisors regarding the reassessment from being placed in county libraries. The letter to Shrewsbury requests access to worksheets on behalf of 250 county property owners who have signed the petitions detailing the work on the individual reassessments.
“There’s got to be a basis for it. They’re telling me they don’t have a basis for it. All they have is a sheet where they came up with their answers. I don’t want the answers. I want the mathematical formulas that go into determining how we wound up with most lots in our county at $60,000,” Chester told me after a brief but explosive meeting with Shrewsbury, during which the commissioner informed Chester that her office did not have the worksheets that he had asked for, and directed him to Blue Ridge Mass Appraisal, the Staunton-based private company that conducted the reassessments for the county on a $570,000 contract.
Chester told me earlier today that he had been given the same direction by Shrewsbury in a phone call, and followed up with Blue Ridge Mass Appraisal and was told by someone at the company that they wouldn’t be able to produce the requested information “for a month, month and a half.”
I’ve left messages with Blue Ridge Mass Appraisal to talk through the reassessment issue myself and not gotten a return call as of yet.
I had been under the same impression as Chester that the commissioner of revenue office should be the custodian of the records that he is seeking. I raised that issue in an e-mail exchange with Shrewsbury two weeks ago, and she gave an indication to me similar to what she did Chester today regarding how the county conducts its property assessment.
“The commissioner of the revenue’s office does not have oversight of the reassessment process,” Shrewsbury told me in the e-mail. “The county sends out a request for proposal for the work to be done. All companies are evaluated against the RFP, and then the contract is awarded. A Board of Assessors is appointed to work along with the contractor. They spend time monthly throughout the process going into the field with the assessors.
“My staff provides clerical support to the Board of Assessors throughout the contract period,” Shrewsbury said. “This entails attending their meetings at the county building but does not include any field work or visits. Therefore your assumption that this work is conducted under the purview of my office is not correct. The general reassessment is conducted according to state code at the request of the Board of Supervisors and under the responsibility of the Board of Assessors.”
What Chester is trying to get at with his request to Shrewsbury and Blue Ridge Mass Appraisal is information on how the reassessment was done. Chester has talked with numerous county residents since signing his name to the countywide fight last month, and has heard from several people whose acreage has been assessed at the same basic rate.
“You’re going to tell me that a parcel of property that has 2.2 acres, and another one that has .25 acres, some that are up on a cliff that only goats could climb, and others that overlook the beauty of our Shenandoah Valley, are all worth the same price? Under the law, each piece of property on God’s earth is unique. And therefore they have to determine each unique piece separately and distinctly,” Chester said.
The letter to Coffield is on a more basic point. “We’ve got cases on point showing that this is wrong for the state to be preventing people from protesting their grievances. And what better place to do this than at the libraries? This is the place where civic is brought to the forefront. What better thing than to have people protest their grievances against their government. And here we have a government official that denies the people these rights,” Chester said of that part of the matter.
Both letters, to Coffield and Shrewsbury, demanded immediate action, with Chester telling both that he would file petitions in Augusta County Circuit Court on Wednesday if appropriate steps aren’t taken to address the issues raised.
– Story by Chris Graham